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Get Out (2017)
Lame horror film tropes and racial stereotypes sink comedy writer's directorial debut
Get Out is the directorial debut of comedy writer Jordan Peele who has taken a page out of the Quentin Tarantino wish fulfillment fantasy playbook. Unlike Tarantino, Peele operates in the much more lucrative horror genre, his film grossing $184 million worldwide against a mere $4.5 million budget.
Peele's protagonist is black photographer, Chris Washington, who agrees to visit his white girlfriend Rose's family (the Armitages) in an upstate suburb. While driving up to the house, there is a bit of foreshadowing of even stranger things to come, when Chris and Rose unexpectedly hit a deer and then have an unpleasant encounter with a state trooper where Rose can't conceal her contempt for law enforcement in general.
Before even meeting the parents, Chris is unnerved by the almost zombie-like behavior of the black groundskeeper and housekeeper, Walter and Georgina. Rose's parents, Dean, a neurosurgeon and Missy, a psychiatrist/hypnotist are depicted as white liberals, with Dean proudly telling Chris that he voted for Obama twice. Rose's brother Jeremy is unable to control an ingrained hostility and has little to do except attack Chris later on when it becomes clear the entire family suffers from a malevolence usually associated with typical horror film tropes.
As for the plot, somehow Chris (due to losing his mother in a car accident when he was a kid) is susceptible to Missy's hypnotic commands, sending him to "the sunken place" where he appears to not only lose consciousness but finds himself at the mercy of the creepy Missy. Soon a coterie of Armitage family friends show up at an annual get-together and it becomes clear that all these white folks are part of a conspiracy to subjugate black people through a series of actions that defy all logic.
For example, when Chris takes a picture of Logan, a recently kidnapped black man from NYC, the camera flash causes him to become hysterical and yell at Chris to "get out." Quite conveniently, the flash isn't enough to break Logan completely out of his fugue state nor is Chris able to simply walk away and call the police, as the mere tapping of a spoon on a tea cup, causes Chris to fall back under Missy's spell.
Peele's universe proves even more ridiculous when Rose is exposed as part of the family conspiracy to grab Chris and plant the brain of Jim Hudson, their older blind art dealer friend, into Chris' head. Somehow, this time, Chris breaks free of the hypnotic command and is able to contact his TSA agent friend, Rod, in NYC, who all along suspected that there was something very sinister afoot with these "crazy" white people.
The wish fulfillment is on display when the stereotyped white liberals get their comeuppance at the hands of the noble Chris. Peele does a great disservice to true victims of racism by reducing the tormentors to a group of straw men and women who are easily set aside. In real life, of course, racism is a far more complicated affair and sometimes the victims turn out to be as bad as their oppressors.
Get Out marks a new low in race relations with Peele setting a poor example for impressionable youth. Instead of trying to mend fences, Peele is content to present African-Americans as perennial victims at the hands of stereotyped white tormentors. No race or ethnic group has a monopoly on benevolence despite Peele's lame and misguided outlook to the contrary.
Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
Overly pious Gibson still delivers war as gripping spectacle with calculated verisimilitude
After ten long years, Mel Gibson is back in the director's seat. Certainly he needed some kind of self-reclamation project given the debacle a decade ago involving some drunk driving and words overheard by an arresting officer that were deemed anti-Semitic. Gibson might be a little like German director Leni Riefenstahl, who for years asked when the statute of limitations would run out on her collaboration as a documentary filmmaker with the Nazis.
Gibson somehow needed a project that would ameliorate the notion of his past narratives infused with hyper-violent tendencies. He perhaps found it in his choice of Desmond Doss, the Army medic awarded the Medal of Honor for his bravery during World War II, despite also refusing to pick up a rifle during combat. Ben Croll writing in IndieWire grasps the paradoxhe finds that Hacksaw Ridge is "a movie venerating pacifism, made by a man pathologically beguiled by violence."
Gibson however provides a rather chaste back story for his pacifist protagonist, chronicling a childhood replete with an abusive father and an incident which leads to his embrace of non-violence when he almost kills his brother during a fistfight (encouraged by the father). After saving a man hit by a truck, Doss (Andrew Garfield) meets nurse Dorothy Schutte (Teresa Palmer) at the hospital in his home town of Lynchburg, Virginia (Gibson filmed most of this on location in Australia). There's a series of rather perfunctory courtship scenes finally leading to Doss' decision to join the Army.
The action picks up as Doss must endure basic training where he is harassed by his fellow soldiers who don't respect his Seventh Day Adventist pacifist beliefs. He also is singled out by the company drill sergeant who makes an example of him in front of the troops. When he is finally court-martialed for insubordination (failing to obey orders to pick up a rifle), there's a rather unconvincing scene where his father obtains a letter from a brigadier general with whom he fought in World War I, and presents it to the commanding officer at the court martial which leads to all charges being dropped.
Gibson's talents, however, are on display in the combat scenes at the battle for Okinawa. The soldiers are forced to climb up the Maeda Escarpment (also known as Hacksaw Ridge), where they come up against scores of Japanese troops, mostly hidden in caves. Gibson proves to be a master at choreographing the battle, which depicts massive losses of life on both sides.
Doss' heroic achievement is highlighted as he climbs back up to the main battlefield and drags wounded soldiers to the edge of the cliff and lowers them down using cleverly knotted ropes. All the while, the Japanese are a short distance away about to pounce. Doss eventually is wounded himself and just makes it back down to join his already decimated unit.
Despite being highly entertaining, the film exhibits what Christopher Gray writing in Slant Magazine, perceives as an overly pious stance here: "The eponymous 350-foot high ridge itself is a resonant image of Desmond's ascension, and Gibson finds more opportunities to place him in baptismal and Christ-like poses. It's all deeply silly and occasionally risible, but it's also undeniably canny, a throwback entertainment that somehow successfully integrates a lofty sense of piety with an unyielding taste for bloodlust."
Jessica Kiang writing in The Playlist is even more critical of Gibson whom she perceives as a tad bit self-righteous: "But this tale of real-life heroism seems less a celebration of humanist convictions than a glorification of religious intransigence and a declaration of the moral superiority of the faithful over the faithless."
Has Gibson redeemed himself for his own past personal sins? Perhaps. Or perhaps not. The piousness is still there as well as the aforementioned "taste for bloodlust." Nonetheless this is a director who is still quite talented and can draw the viewer in by depicting war as spectacle with a calculated verisimilitude.
Anthropomorphic animals occasionally amuse but Zootopia descends into a quagmire of political correctness
Having recently seen Pixar's entertaining computer animated comedy-drama Finding Dory, I was expecting something comparable from Disney with Zootopia. Unlike "Dory," which features a mixture of anthropomorphized fish characters playing off against humans, Zootopia features a world completely populated by non-human mammals (as well as some rodents thrown in to boot).
The world of Zootopia posits the cessation of hostilities between the 10% of "predators" versus 90% prey in the animal kingdom. However, that doesn't prevent the existence of prejudice among the creatures of Zootopia. The protagonist, Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny from rural Bunnyburrow seeks to become the first bunny police officer. After ending up #1 in her class at the Police Academy, she becomes the first bunny officer in urban Zootropolis, a sprawling metropolis which features various ethnic neighborhoods such as Rodentia (a miniature city populated strictly by rodents), reflecting the ethnic diversity in human metropolitan centers.
When Chief Bogo (Idris Elba), a surly, by- the-book ram with a British accent, assigns Judy to humiliating duty as a meter maid, we realize that the discriminatory treatment she endures is a metaphor for misogyny and prejudice against women in the workplace.
The appearance of the con-artist fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman)--as well as an earlier duplicitous fox character with a southern accent, Gideon Grey, back in Bunnyburrow--suggests that foxes appear to live up to their stereotyped reputations as manipulators and swindlers. Later on, Nick saves Judy and gives up a life of crime to become the first fox officer in Zootropolis. We learn that he initially went bad because of the prejudice he endured as a kid (the idea of an oppressed fox adopting the personality of his oppressor- -i.e. a criminal--doesn't seem like a far-fetched conceit at all).
While the Zootopia scenarists keep us guessing (and occasionally laughing a little bit) as to how the various denizens of Zootopia mimic human behavior, the bulk of the plot is more reminiscent of a film noir. Take away all the animals and replace them with real human characters and all that remains is a rather standard detective noir. In this case, Judy and Nick are the "detectives" who have 48 hours to find a Mr. Otterton--one of 10 predator mammals who have mysteriously disappeared from Zootropolisor else Judy will be forced to hand in her resignation to boss Bogo.
Judy and Nick's travails occasionally land them in some occasionally amusing worlds including a DMV office populated by extremely lugubrious sloths (the joke however, goes on for a little too long). Then there's "Mr. Big," who appears to be a takeoff on Marlon Brando as the Godfather. The twist is that he's a rodent and sits on the tiniest of thrones.
Rather than humor, Zootopia is more interested in social commentary as Judy and Nick finally find the missing predators who have been imprisoned at an asylum by the city's mayor, a lion bent on protecting the public from the predators who have reverted to a "savage" state.
Nick splits with Judy after she suggests at a news conference that there might be a "biological cause" for the predators' extreme aggressive behavior. Somehow her suggestion is interpreted the wrong waybiology becomes heredity in the eyes of animals like Nick, who represent the 10% of predators subject to discrimination. Zootopia takes on an even more heavy-handed turn when we learn that the predators have been injected with darts containing a serum made from toxic flowers. This turns out to be the "biological" cause Judy alluded to earlier which accounts for the crazed behavior of the "predators." Behind all this is a "Prey Supremacist" movementled by the newly minted mayor, Bellwhether, a sheep who was only recently the Assistant Mayor.
Could it be the 10%-- the "predators"--are a metaphor for minority populations, subject to racism and discrimination? And the prey supremacists is just another code word for "white supremacy"? All well and good but there's still one little problem herethose who engage in criminal activities (such as Nick the Fox), blame their immoral behavior on being victims of prejudice in childhood. Is that a valid excuse for immoral conduct? It seems that "personal responsibility" is a value that the film's scenarists are ignoring here.
Again the idea of the oppressed becoming the oppressors is a valid one, but Zootopia doesn't exactly deal with it in a completely honest way. Here the foxes are simply wily con men, with their chief (Nick), becoming completely reformed and willing to work within the system (Nick again is the first fox policeman). But what of those who choose to seek a life of violent crime? Where are these characters in the Zootopia universe? Only the "Prey Supremacists" are guilty of extreme, nefarious conduct. The Predators (foxes), however, are practically benignwith the idea that most will go straight like Nick and Judy's reformed childhood bully (the fox, Gideon Grey).
Zootopia unfortunately is an exercise in political correctness. While pointing out that prejudice is a bad thing (which of course is a very good idea)--the suggestion that the victims of such prejudice won't usually end up prejudiced themselves, is an example of wishful thinking. No one ethnic group should be held up as a paragon of moral superiority simply because they were victims of discrimination in the past.
O.J.: Made in America (2016)
Payback for Rodney King and prosecution's failure to challenge ludicrous defense police conspiracy theory highlight brilliant 7 1/2 hour documentary
Seven and a half hours in length and in five parts, OJ: Made in America can best be described as "Everything you wanted to know about OJ (and race in America) but were afraid to ask." OJ: Made in America is like a giant jig-saw puzzle, and it's up to you to figure out the lessons learned (if any) among the participants in the sordid spectacle known as "The Trial of the Century."
Ezra Edelman produced and directed OJ: Made in America ("OJ:MIA") and was determined from the outset to show the connection between the OJ Trial and the history of resentment built up in the African-American community as a result of years (if not centuries) of discrimination, racism and outright violence perpetrated against it. Hence at the very time OJ came onto the scene as a star football player for the University of Southern California (USC), the Watts riots were happening right next door to the campus, depicted as a bastion of white privilege.
Ironically, the most popular man on campus at that time was OJ himself, who was determined to ingratiate himself with an all-white student body, oblivious to what was going on in the larger community right outside his doorstep. OJ was so determined to shed any connection to his black roots that you can hear him saying on the archival footage, "I'm not black, I'm OJ!"
It was no accident years later that OJ's defense team changed all the pictures in his house featuring his associations with a myriad of white friends and replaced them with pictures of his black relatives in order to give the majority black jury the impression that maybe he wasn't an Uncle Tom, as some militants had accused him of being during his years as a professional NFL player and Hertz rent-a-car pitchman.
By the time his playing days were over, OJ had basically given up most of his connections to the lower middle- class black community where he grew up, married Nicole Brown, a white woman, and moved to the gated "white" Brentwood suburb of Los Angeles. As he later admitted, he didn't pay much attention to the concerns of his fellow blacks as he was more determined to make it as a man of wealth and privilege in a white world.
Edelman spends a good deal of time chronicling the Rodney King beating incident and its aftermath in order to remind us of the injustice of the first trial and the resentment it caused in the black community not only in the Los Angeles area but across the entire country. It is within this atmosphere that the OJ jury was seated. Interviews with various community "activists" make it clear that most people in the black community saw OJ as a symbol (or cause célèbre if you will), with the verdict already pre-determined, as payback for the Rodney King trial.
This is borne out by one of two interviews with two actual jurors from the trial. Juror #9, a feisty older black woman, who asserted that 90% of the people on the jury had made up their minds from the beginning, not only as payback for Rodney King but as s he put it, "to protect our own." Juror #9 comes off in OJ:MIA as one of the most fascinating characters in the documentary. On one hand, she had little sympathy for Nicole Brown, unable to understand why domestic violence victims are unable to leave their husbands despite enduring horrendous physical abuse and constant psychological humiliation. On the other hand, Juror #9 is one of the few African Americans initially sympathetic to OJ who was willing to concede later on that he was probably guilty!
In contrast, Juror #2, a middle-aged black woman, is much more circumspect. She maintained that, because of their mistakes, the prosecution team failed to make their case. Unlike Juror #9, Juror #2 isn't willing to concede that the prosecution team was dealing with an inherently biased jury. But even barring that, the defense team still had to get around the problem of all of the victims' blood mixed in with OJ's DNA found at the scene.
Juror #2's solution is to dismiss all police testimony by basically blaming Mark Fuhrman as unreliable since she was personally offended by his use of N-word and lying about it on the stand. But the defense team argued that ALL the police (including Vanatter, the chief detective) were involved in a grand conspiracy to mix OJ's blood with the victims.
By that logic, any future defense attorney could argue that police testimony is tainted since you can't trust any of them due to inherent racism. The argument of a grand police conspiracy sounds even more ludicrous considering the victim involved. OJ was a friend of the police and even though a few had knowledge of OJ's abuse of Nicole, the police never stopped coming over to his house in friendship before the murders.
Juror #2 was probably right about the prosecution bungling the case but not for the "mistakes" she cites. Instead, it appears more obvious that the prosecution failed to challenge the ludicrousness of the defense's notion of a vast police conspiracy, accepted uncritically by an already biased jury.
OJ:MIA documents the shock many in the white community felt at what they regarded was an unjust verdict. Somehow they expected many in the African-American community to take the "high road" and look at the case objectivelyinstead, it was purely an "emotional" verdict based on years of resentmentthe "taste of victory" was more important than really analyzing the defense's flimsy case which was principally based on massive generalizations and crude innuendo.
In the end OJ did get his just desserts. He thought he was going to return to his regular routine only to discover that he was now a pariah and eventually an inmate to boot. For O.J.: what goes around, comes around!
20th Century Women (2016)
1979 coming of age narrative features endearing characters but a plot that wears out its welcome
Director Mike Mills is back after six years with another sensitive exploration of family life, following the 2010 release of Beginners, a fictionalized story of his father who came out of the closet past the age of seventy. Here Mills tackles a coming of age tale set in Santa Barbara, California, circa 1979.
Mills' strong suit is his characters, all of whom exude a heady verisimilitude. The main focus is on the relationship between a divorced mother, Dorothea (Annette Benning) and her teenage son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann). Dorothea has two boarders in her home: the 20ish photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and aging hippie carpenter William (Billy Crudup). Also in the mix is teenager Julie (Elle Fanning) who develops a platonic friendship with Jamie, and often sleeps over in Jamie's bedroom without his mother's knowledge.
Throughout the film, Mills provides a back story for each of the protagonists in a series of flashbacks, narrated in voice-overs by one of their principal counterparts (Dorothea's back story is narrated by Jamie, for example). He intersperses documentary footage and still images that correspond to the era in which each character grew up in. Titles of prominent books from the 70s also manage to find their way into the narrative as bookmarks of sorts, coupled with a soundtrack that features a combination of an ethereal-sounding theme along with late 70s punk music.
Each character has a distinctive history--whether it's the chain-smoking Dorothea, troubled by her lack of a relationship with a man; the equally troubled Jamie, pining away for Julie, who won't reciprocate his desire to become intimate, and fears that she's been impregnated by a teenager who's simply used her for sex; Abbie, dealing with a diagnosis of cervical cancer; and William, once a member of a hippie commune and unable to break his habit of desiring casual sex with women.
For a while, Mills' plot keeps one's interest. There's Jamie's rebellion against his mother which leads to reckless behaviorat one point, the rebellious teenager almost is asphyxiated while playing a deadly choking game with a group of other reckless teenagers. Abbie finds out that her cancer isn't fatal and also gets what turns out to be a false diagnosis that she won't be able to have children anymore. She also propositions William and they sleep together.
At a certain point (perhaps 90 minutes into the film), Dorothea reveals in a voice-over that she'll die of cancer in 1999. We're expecting Mills to wrap things up at this point but no, he drags his story out to almost an unnecessary two hours in length.
The problem is that there's little variation or suspense in resolving the problem in Dorothea and Jamie's relationship. Early on Dorothea tells Jamie, "we've got to talk," and Jamie replies, "whatever." It seems we hear the same thing at the end of the film which suggests there's little new to learn about the ongoing mother-son conflict.
Mills introduces a long-winded dinner table scene in which Abbie castigates those in attendance for being embarrassed talking about "menstruation." Later, Dorothea tells Abbie she's been a bad influence on Jamie, pointing him in the wrong direction with her new-found feminist interests.
Finally, the big "resolve" is hardly a bang and much more of a whimper. Jamie and Julie drive up the coast and settle in a cabin where Jamie's "nice guy" routine fails for the last time to entice Julie into bed. When he disappears, Julie frantically calls Dorothea, who drives up with Abbie and William, to find the errant son. But when they get there, Jamie has suddenly returned and the air feels like it's totally dissipated from the proverbial balloon.
The fate of the principals, so emotionally descriptive, is perhaps the best part of the film. The narration informs what happens to all the protagonists, with Dorothea finding happiness with a new man in her life and Jamie eventually reaching adulthood and fathering a child.
20th Century Women features good acting all-around, with Annette Benning aptly conveying the confusion of a mother whose teenage son displays stirrings of desire to leave the nest. Mills' characters are endearing but his episodic description of what happens to them eventually wears out its welcome. This is a film that could have been almost half an hour shorter and somehow Mills needed to think harder about how to build suspense and bring his 20th Century Women to a more satisfying conclusion.
The Childhood of a Leader (2015)
Dictator's makeup tied to predictable Freudian and dysfunctional authoritarian family tropes
Those indie filmmakers contemplating a directorial debut should beware of a dreaded contagion which I have dubbed "The Citizen Kane syndrome." You don't exactly have to be a boy wonder such as Orson Welles to churn out a well-received debut featureall you have to do is be a technical virtuoso with a brilliant set design, highly original cinematography and an experimental, gripping score that diverts your audiences' attention from a screenplay that is so generic that virtually all psychological complexity is lost. Of course Welles managed to avoid all that until he substituted the stock melodramatic figure of his protagonist Charles Foster Kane for the real-life William Randolph Hearst, in the second half of what has come to be regarded as the most technically innovative film of the 20th century.
Debut Director Brad Corbett also seems to have fallen victim to the "syndrome" in his rather specious take on the childhood of a wholly generic "Fascist leader." But before we examine the generic quality of his narrative, Corbett's talents still must be acknowledged. He has put together a story involving a period in history that is rarely covered these daysa behind-the-scenes look at the Versailles Treaty negotiations from the Allied point of view; what's more he's impressively employed Kane-like cinematography and music, creating a Gothic noir palette reminiscent of the German Expressionists.
That being said, Corbett's story that seeks to explore the roots of fascism, manages to hold few surprises. His anti-hero (played by the young Tom Sweet) is named Prescott (aka "The boy")--he's the son of a married couple, a German woman and a US diplomat, who has arrived in France as part of the team to negotiate the terms of the Versailles Treaty with Germany, along with the other defeated countries in World War I.
Corbett's narrative chronicles a series of tantrums the boy throws beginning with some rocks he hurls at parishioners leaving a church. The head priest tries to reason with the boy but his anti-social behavior continues. The mother's main crime, according to the film's scenarists, is that she overly-feminizes her son by failing to cut his hair short; at a certain point, the father's fellow diplomat mistakes the boy for a girl. On another occasion, the boy gropes the breasts of his French teacher--which I suppose is intended to suggest that he's acting out his Oedipal attachment on a more attractive substitute.
Eventually the boy parades naked in front of the father's assembled associates and then locks himself in his room and won't come out, despite entreaties from his mother and a sympathetic maid who is eventually fired by the mother for encouraging him in his rebellious proclivities.
Corbett takes a stab at blaming an authoritarian patriarchal culture for the boy's eventual descent into what appears more like Stalinism than Fascism at film's endit's the boy's father who gives him a nice little whipping after refusing to comply with his demands to come out of his room. Thus, the boy's childhood traumas at the hands of his parents, serve mainly as the director's explanation for his embrace of evil as an adult.
At the denouement, Corbett only offers a glimpse of his authoritarian martinet. And as argued before, it's a wholly generic portrait since we learn nothing about the future monster to be except that he's propped up by an adoring crowd of sycophants.
Corbett also indulges in generalizing about the average man's apathy in the face of evil. Echoing Satayana's famous quote ("Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"), he has one of his characters, Charles, a widowed British diplomat, quote the Sartre- influenced novelist John Fowles: "That is the tragedy: Not that one man has the courage to be evil, but that so many have not the courage to be good."
Corbett's greatest failure here is to develop some of the ideas from his source materiala short story by Sartre (from which he takes the title of this film)in it, Sartre follows his protagonist who has a one-time affair with a pederast poet and then joins a group of youths, who assassinate a Jewish man on the street. This idea is also found in Rossellini's filmGermany Year Zerowhere a prepubescent boy murders his father after coming under the influence of a Nazi-sympathizer, a pederast, in post-war Berlin.
Encounters that prepubescent boys and young teenagers had with pederasts and certain kinds of homosexuals (not of the liberal persuasion)--as chronicled in such books as "The Hidden Hitler" and "The Pink Swastika"suggest that there may be more of a direct connection to adults joining fascist movements later on than what Corbett lets on here. Again, his rather tame speculation finds its roots in his simplistic, generic understanding of "evil"not based on true, real-life experience.
Still, Corbett is not without talent on a technical levela script with more psychological depth the next time around should afford him an opportunity to join the ranks of talented directors churning out compelling art-house offerings.
Free in Deed (2015)
Worthwhile as social critique but faith healer characters don't appear very fleshed out
Working in cinema verité style, experimental filmmaker Jake Mahaffy has fashioned his part social critique and documentary-like narrative based on a true story about a faith healing gone bad. He employs only two professional actors, Edwina Findley and David Harewood, and the rest are culled mainly from the ranks of a Memphis Pentecostal church, where most of the action takes place.
Findlay does well in the main part as Melva, the harried mother of an autistic child, Benny, very convincingly played by newcomer, RaJay Chandler. Melva doesn't know what to do with Benny, who is the prototypical infant terrible, constantly screaming and banging his head against the wall.
Mahaffy does well in what turns out to be a welcome social critique for the first half of his narrative. It's the psychiatric profession that mainly comes under fire here along with an indifferent social services bureaucracy that forces people like Melva, as a last resort, to seek help from a cult-like religious institution such as the Pentecostal church depicted here.
The bottom line is that the modern day healers, with their psychotropic drugs that do more harm than good, provide few answers for harried mothers such as Melva, pretending that they offer solutions to parents of autistic children, when they clearly do not.
Mahaffy is on less solid ground in his depiction of the faith healers. The place is run by the main healer, Mother (played by the real-life Prophetess Libra who runs the Pentecostal church), along with Bishop (blues guitarist Preston Shannon), Harewood's Abe is the one they rely on to do the actual faith healings as he's already supposedly cured someone of cancer and has a reputation of someone always volunteering to be saved at the onset of each service.
Mother's panacea consists mainly of clearing Melva's apartment of evil influences including Halloween decorations and that's about the extent we learn about the church-goers' mindset. Abe, far less communicative, is all fire and brimstone, and gets a little too physical with Benny during the exorcism, which leads to the tragedy of the boy's death.
Mahaffy doesn't really know how to build suspense so he's content to depict real services in the church one after another, imparting to the entire piece a rather lugubrious and repetitious feel. His characters too do not really appear to be fleshed out (i.e. developed) except for the aforementioned Melva, as her story turns out to be the most compelling.
Despite winning the Horizons section at the Venice film Festival, Free in Deed, is a minor work, which might have worked better as a documentary than a low-budget feature.
Downbeat tale of TV news reporter finds itself in inevitable cul-de-sac
Christine is the true story of Christine Chubbuck, a 29 year old television reporter working for a local TV station in Sarasota, Florida. After watching the film, I wondered why I had never heard of this story before because I'm usually up on news stories that make the national news. The story however occurred in the summer of 1974, right before I was entering my senior year of college and I believe I was working as a camp counselor and didn't have access to any news during that time. Before I go any further, I would like to insert a SUPER SPOILERS warning here. If you haven't heard of this story before and prefer to watch the film without knowing the big plot twist, then stop reading HERE, go see the film and continue reading later on.
Before the shocking event at the end of the film, I kept wondering what was the point in chronicling the life of this news reporter. As the narrative unfolds, the story appears to be a real downbeat tale of a woman suffering from severe depressiona sad sack if you will who is hard to care for at all. As I say in all my reviews of films involving characters with weak egos-these are the "sad sacks" who simply do not make for good drama.
In the case of Christine, her internal character arc is headed in the wrong direction from the beginning. Physically she is facing the removal of an ovary which may seriously impact her ability to have children. Worse is the pressure she receives from her boss Michael at the stationhe insists that her human interest pieces do not garner good ratings and she should focus more on salacious crime stories. After she comes up with an idea for a documentary, Michael shoots it down and chooses another piece by Jean, her friend and camera operator at the station. This causes her to have a meltdown in front of all her co-workers, screaming at the boss, attempting to humiliate him by claiming his wife is an alcoholic.
Christine develops an interest in her co-worker George, an anchor at the station. When he brings her to a self-help group, she confesses that she's a virgin but would like to get married and have children. Perhaps the straw that breaks the camel's back is when George reveals that he's been chosen to be transferred to a more desirable market in Baltimore. This propels Christine to drive over to the home of Bob Anderson, the station owner, in the mistaken belief that he's also chosen her to move to Baltimore. However, he reveals that he's chosen Andrea, the sports anchor, to go with George. It's obvious that Christine regards this as a betrayal, due to the exaggerated image she has of herself.
After Christine convinces Michael to let her do a live report on the air, footage of a crime scene stalls and the shocking incident which I alluded to earlier, occurs. Christine announces that the station will air a live suicide attempt and then promptly shoots herself in the head with a gun resulting in her death.
So what exactly is the point in writing this screenplay in the first place? If someone decides to commit suicide as a heroic act (during wartime, for example), maybe there's a story in that. But here? I just don't see what's so compelling about this particular person's story. A character such as this really has nowhere to go.
Now think of successful filmsit's always about a person who has a belief in themselves. That person can be a good person or someone thoroughly evilbut it's always the ego-driven individual who makes for compelling drama. Just imagine George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life," killing himself after Uncle Billy absentmindedly loses the bank's money. Do you really believe that such a film would be a TV staple broadcast every Christmas? I hardly think so.
Rebecca Hall stars as the hapless Christine. She does a fine job as do all the other actors in this true-life drama. If "Christine" has a saving grace, it's the recreation of the early 70s, an era that most of us baby boomers recall fondly, especially due to the heady days of Watergate, which figures prominently in the early segments of this film. Unfortunately all the nostalgic detail and good acting are wasted, as this meditation on suicide finds itself in an inevitable cul-de-sac.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Little nuance as female African-American NASA pioneers receive long overdue recognition
If you like your American History etched in a simplistic black and white, then perhaps Hidden Figures is for you. But if you require your historical "cup of tea" to be much more nuanced, with decided "shades of gray," then this entertaining yarn about three African-American women and their under-appreciated contribution to NASA's space race, might not be the accurate and important film that a majority of the critics and attentive film-goers believe it to be.
It's 1961 when Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) and Katherine G Johnson (Taraji P Henson), show up at NASA headquarters located at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. In Director Theodore Melfi's conception, Langley becomes a symbol of the racism of the times but in employing dramatic license, he makes it much worse than it actually was.
Take for example the segregated bathroom facilitiesthey were already eliminated by NASA three years earlier in 1958so the scene where Kevin Costner's "Al Harrison" character utilizes a sledgehammer to take down the "coloreds only" sign, never happened. Nor did Katherine Johnson ever go to the segregated toiletsshe used the whites only bathroom for years and was only challenged onceand on that occasion she merely ignored the objection and continued using the bathroom unopposed.
According to the non-fiction book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly which the film was based on, Johnson was quoted as saying that she was aware of racism but while working at Langley never "FELT" it. To her, she was just doing her job. And as far as being barred from joining the special Space Task Group, the truth of the matter was that she received the promotion in 1958 after working in the Flight Research Division for five years, beginning in 1953. She even co-authored a report while part of the Space Task Group in 1960.
Unlike Johnson who didn't feel like she was a victim of discrimination, Mary Jackson did indeed have to use separate bathroom facilities before 1958 (although the half a mile hike to get to the bathroom was an exaggeration). She didn't however, have to obtain a court order to take engineering coursesso the dramatic scene before the Judge was again a fictional construct. Instead she merely asked for an exemption and it was granted. And the actual promotion to engineer took place three years earliernote that this is seven years before the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
Much is made in the film of how Dorothy Vaughn was passed over for a promotion to supervisor, opposed by her own supervisor, Mrs. Mitchell, a bigoted white woman who is depicted as patronizing. While Mitchell is a fictional character, it's even more shocking to learn that Dorothy became a supervisor in 1948! She also joined an integrated team in 1958, the year that NASA's name was changed from its previous acronym NACA (The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics).
Jim Parsons rounds out the film's collection of composite characters, playing the head engineer, Paul Stafford. He's there not as a symbol of racism but of male chauvinismhe's insistent on preventing Katherine from entering the room where the all-male Pentagon briefings are held.
Hidden Figures fulfills its well- intentioned, feel-good mission as it chronicles Katherine Johnson's role in the early space missions, as she provides complex mathematical calculations for Alan Shepherd's first US manned flight and John Glenn's first orbit of the earth.
The point of course is that the contributions of African-Americans to American history have often been ignored and the film's scenarists rightfully are determined to set the record straight and provide recognition where recognition has been long so overdue. In that respect, the film has accomplished a worthwhile goal.
The highly attractive Taraji P Henson, donning eyeglasses, steals the show as the former child prodigy, who proves to her colleagues that race and gender are no impediment to performing a job well doneespecially when that job entails understanding those complex set of mathematical calculations beyond the scope of the average person.
The curmudgeon in me recognizes the bigger picture here involving the space racewhat some discerning critics might classify as a "sacred cow." While I don't want to disparage the contributions of such brave individuals as John Glennit's necessary to recognize there's something much more sinister afoot hereand that is man's capacity for self-deception.
After all the space program really is a relicIn the early 60s, everything was geared toward putting a man on the moon. We managed to accomplish thatplanting the flag, collecting a few rocksbut after that, everything has been anti-climactic. Indeed, we are no closer to answering the age-old question, are we alone in the universe?
I was shocked to see Katherine Johnson at the Academy Awards recently. Sitting in her wheelchair, it appeared time has certainly taken its toll on the once vibrant mathematician. The necessity and satisfaction in acknowledging minority contributions to our overall history pales in comparison to recognizing the fact of our inviolability of life here on earththe rock group Kansas put it best when they sung, we'll all be soon like "dust in the wind."
Francophiles may dig all the "passion," but others may see this as a generic tale of adolescent love lost
Arnaud Desplechin first introduced his protagonists, the young Paul Dédalus and his girlfriend Esther, way back in 1996 in his highly successful "My Sex Life... or How I Got into an Argument." Now he brings Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric) back again as an adult, just having returned from his work as an anthropologist in Tajikistan.
The film is divided into three segments, with an adult Paul reminiscing first about his childhood, chronicling an abusive father and depressed mother, who eventually commits suicide.
There's not much to the first segment but the second proves to be the most interesting. After being detained by government security forces, Paul explains why another Paul Dedalus, with origins in Russia, has turned up with his passport.
Paul is subjected to an interrogation by a security agent which allows him to explain how he gave up his passport while on a high school trip to Russia so that a Jewish teenager could use it to escape to Israel during the time of anti-Semitic persecutions of Jews in the Soviet Union during the late 80s.
But My Golden Days turns from being a suspense thriller to a more conventional coming of age story when the young college student Paul (played convincingly by Quentin Dolmaire), falls for Esther, a high school student who is the same age as Paul's sister, Delphine.
After having seen the film a few weeks ago, I had trouble recalling details about Paul and Esther's romance-- so I turned to a few critic's reviews to refresh my memory. Short on plot description, some reviews are content to provide a few amorphous descriptions of the nature of the relationship.
Kenneth Turan, writing in the L.A. Times, briefly explains, "We see them playing out the drama of attraction and insecurity, inexorably drawn to each other but having to face the problems different personalities invariably bring to relationships."
Peter Travers in Rolling Stone feels there's something quite deep about what happens between Paul and Esther: "Memory gives the movie a formal frame, but Desplechin laces the past with such raw emotion that nothing is hemmed in. Love hurts, that's for sure. And Desplechin makes sure we feel it."
Stephanie Zacharek writing in Time Magazine provides a few more details about Paul and Esther's burgeoning romance: "It takes a long time, in this eternal nighttime, for Paul and Esther to connect. Their flirtations are stilted at first, especially since Paul feels threatened by her many suitors, and she doesn't need to lie about their numbers: Young men cluster to her, as Marlene Dietrich sang, like moths around a flame. But ultimately, it's Paul she chooses, and their liaison starts out sweet before wending its way into l'amour fou territory."
Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat writing in Spirituality & Practice believe Desplechin is on to something in what they see as a nuanced portrait of the protagonist's motives: "He reveals the delights and the dangers in our idealization of the beloved, our dizzying capacities of infatuation, the primal longings for each other, and the pain and pleasure which this state of romantic arousal engenders.
The Brussats perhaps provide the best summary of the third segment. They note that Paul puts Esther on a "pedestal" but still leaves her behind when he goes to Paris for school. There is a sub-plot emphasizing Paul's competence in his chosen field when he convinces a noted anthropology professor to accept him as a student.
Later Paul and Esther share intimacies through a series of love letters but their separation leads to the deterioration of their relationship. As the Brussats put it, Esther "begins to fall apart emotionally and he is at a loss for what to do in response." Finally Paul seeks solace with an older woman and never seems to get over Esther's decision to go out with his best friend, Kovalki, with whom Paul meets up at film's end, and is unable to contain his anger towards.
Ultimately Desplechin's portrait of a failed adolescent relationship suffers from a lack of gravitas or high stakes. I would contrast this film with Bergman's "Summer With Monika," where a femme fatale destroys the relationship an earnest young man develops with a young woman who is not what she initially appears to be.
Esther, on the other hand, is simply a spoiled neurotic and Paul's inability to shed all the misplaced anger from such an earlier time in his development marks Desplechin's narrative as decidedly inconsequential despite all his "innovative" split-screens and entertaining 80s soundtrack.
Francophiles will undoubtedly dig all the "passion," but this dyed-in-the-wool American views this more as a generic tale of adolescent loves lost.